Fielding Jewish Legal Questions by Text Message
07/18/2012 - 16:31
Rabbi Jason Miller
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner will respond to hundreds of text message inquiries a day.
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner will respond to hundreds of text message inquiries a day.

Like many rabbis, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner receives many requests for religious advice. A hundred years ago, Jewish people would put pencil to paper and send off their question to the rabbi and then await a response. At the end of the last century, email inquires became popular. Today, it’s not uncommon for rabbis to receive text messages from their congregants asking them to render a decision.

For Rabbi Aviner, these text message come into this phone as much as 200 on an average day. He can expect upwards of 500 text messages if it’s before a Jewish holiday. And Aviner actually responds to each one. He is skilled in both Jewish law as well as a gift for brevity.

Aviner has saved each of these text message teshuvot (Jewish legal responses) and they are have been published as a set. The Aviner Text Message Teshuvot can be ordered for $20.

On his Hirhurim blog, Rabbi Gil Student explains the attention these text message teshuvot are getting:

The time has passed when the Jewish public was amazed by Torah on a new medium–websites, cell phones, social media, etc. We demand more than just innovation for its own sake but primarily useful content and practical value. Many argue that text message responsa–rabbinic questions and answers in text message format–represent a diminution of Torah, worthy of ridicule. I disagree and find value in this genre.

The most recent critique of text message responsa was published last week by Dr. Yoel Finkelman. To his credit, his evaluation was mixed and, unlike some others, not dripping in condescension. R. Shlomo Aviner published a defense of text message responsa on his website. As I expressed in a post last week, I am generally opposed to all “ask the rabbi” features, regardless of format or medium, because people should develop a personal relationship with their local rabbi. Good halakhic rulings must recognize the questioner’s personal circumstances, which can never be fully evaluated without a longstanding personal relationship. However, setting that aside, I find text message responsa fascinating and I eagerly devour e-mail compilations of R. Shlomo Aviner’s correspondence.

It should really come as no surprise that people are posing questions to their rabbis in the same communications medium they use to communicate with their friends. While it took rabbis a while to adapt to correspondance through FAX machines and then later email, it will eventually become commonplace to send a text message to a rabbi for a quick response. I'm sure some rabbis are even beginning to dispense Halachik advice through Facebook messaging.

Rabbi Jason Miller is an entrepreneurial rabbi and blogger. He is president of Access Computer Technology, an IT, website design/build, and social media marketing company in Michigan. He blogs at http://blog.rabbijason.com and is on Twitter at @RabbiJason.

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